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Keywords:

  • food;
  • rainfall;
  • regulation;
  • Serengeti;
  • wildebeest

Summary

1. The migratory wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus (Burchell)) population of Serengeti has been monitored for 40 years (1958–1998). The population increased from 1963 to 1977, stabilized from 1977 to 1993 and declined during drought in 1993–94. These changes provided a significant contrast in densities and the opportunity to determine the life history stages where survival was density dependent and their causes.

2. There was a delay in age of maturity and a decline of both yearling and adult pregnancy rates at higher densities. Changes in yearling pregnancy had minimal effect on number of calves born. Adult pregnancy rate dropped from 95% to 88%

3. The greatest absolute mortality occurred in newborn calves (0–4 months old). The most variable survival was in dry-season calf mortality (5–11 months old).

4. Density dependence was clearly present in adult mortality and this appeared to be the regulating life stage. Density dependence was also found in dry-season calf mortality. The drop in pregnancy rate was only weakly density dependent.

5. The main cause of mortality (75% of cases) was undernutrition. Bone marrow condition showed that more animals died in extremely poor condition as the population increased and predators did not cause these deaths.

6. Predation played only a minor role in limiting the wildebeest population. Predators caught animals in moderate condition during the increase phase and increasingly healthy condition during years of high population density. The main predators were lion [Panthera leo (Linnaeus)] and hyaena (Crocuta crocuta Erxleben).

7. Adult mortality was significantly negatively related to food per capita. This could be viewed either as curvilinear density dependence, or as two phases of mortality. The first phase was during population increase when mortality was inversely density dependent and may have been caused by a constant predation rate. The second was during stability and decline and comprised the additive effects of undernutrition and predation.

8. Rainfall in the dry season was the most important extrinsic determinant of food supply for the wildebeest population but food was related to mortality only when population density was incorporated.

9. At present the wildebeest population appears regulated by natural causes through food supply. Human-caused mortality appears to be a minor factor. However, if the number of wildebeest killed by humans increases as human population increases, then there could be a permanent decline in wildebeest, and a major change in the whole ecosystem, because wildebeest are the keystone species. Continued monitoring is essential for conservation of the Serengeti ecosystem.